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When Women get together...(Ani Zonneveld)

Recently, November 17-19, 2006, I attended the first W.I.S.E. (Women’s Islamic initiative in Spirituality and Equity) conference in New York. Spearheaded by Daisy Khan of ASMA Society (, the task at the conference was to create a Shura Council (an advisory board) that will contribute to an interpretation of the Quran and our Islamic traditions in a modern context. Of course not everyone agreed with a need for such a Council. Regardless of whether we agreed or not, however, the one thing that was apparent was that to some degree, we are all getting shafted by our Muslim men. We all agree that women are used, abused, discriminated against despite what the Quran dictates. I see W.I.S.E. as building on the momentum started by Turkey with the abolishment of hadith passages vilifying women, and on the training of women spiritual leaders in Morocco. The fact that these changes are happening in the heartland of Islam speaks volumes about the integrity of my fellow Muslims. After all, gender equality is a struggle found in the western world and in all faith traditions till this century. In attendance were women from all over the world, over 100. I was humbled and proud to see so many women working to empower other unprivileged women. Some by way of lectures, books, and scholarship, as social workers, activists, and government officials, and others through the arts and pop culture. I can’t tell you about all the women I spoke to, but I can give you a peek into some of the extraordinary contributions of a few of them. As punishment for her brother’s alleged crime, Mukhtaran Mai was gang raped by a more powerful family. A hideous punishment commanded by the village council. Usually women would commit suicide after such a punishment, but Mukhtaran decided she was going to teach them a lesson….by fighting back. Fight back she did. Beyond the court cases in which she pressed charges against the perpetrators of this crime, she decided to turn her anger into positive action. She decided to educate her village by establishing a school for boys and girls. At first the school had three students, and the teacher worked for free for 6 months. To pay the teacher’s wages Mukhtaran sewed, earning $1.50 a day and setting aside half. HALF. Would you be willing to contribute HALF of your income to a cause? But Mukhtaran’s sacrifice has brought great dividends. She now has hundreds of students, and has built a shelter for abused women. Rather than taking her own life, Mukhtaran Mai, an uneducated, nonliterate and abused woman turned her anger and pain into a positive force and became an international symbol of courage and dignity. (To view her speak visit my site at: In the video Mukhtaran ends her talk by saying: To remain apathetic is a crime; to remain silence is a crime, is a crime! She has a book out entitled: In the Name of Honour. Mukhtaran is assisted by ANAA (Asian-American Network Against Abuse of Human Rights), Help them eradicate violence against women. Dr. Massouda Jala, a psychiatrist and pediatrician from Afghanistan, provided medical care to women for 23 years. With the Taliban kicked out, her community asked her to run for office. They put her name on the ballot the day before the elections, resulting in her becoming the representative of Kabul in the 2002 loya jirga. At that point she decided that for her to be effective she needed to work to create laws prohibiting discrimination against women; thus, the Women’s Affairs Ministry (Secretariat) came into being. A movie about her entitled Still Fighting by New View Films (in DC) is in the making. An audience member asked her whether the situation for women is better with the Taliban gone. Her response: “It was, but in the past year 300 girls’ schools have been burnt down.” Rima Khoreibi is sort of my equivalent but in a different medium. She is a children’s fiction writer and author of a series entitled The Adventures of Iman. Iman is a teenage Muslim girl, a super hero! The stories teach children about the values of Islam, with passages from the Quran and Hadith as footnotes! These books should be used as text books in our Muslim schools. Then there is Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, an American who spent seven years completing a translation of the Quran into English from a women’s perspective. (The book will be out in spring of 2007, One example of the conventional male-centered and misogynistic interpretations of sacred text is verse 4:34: “Husbands who fear adversity on the part of wives, admonish then, leave their bed, and beat them.” But Prophet Muhammad never beat his wives or any women for that matter. The current translation of ‘bdr’ is “to beat (them)”, but lo and behold there are 25 other meanings to that same word. One means to ‘walk away’, and that is precisely what the Prophet did. Amin to that! I came out of the conference full of hope, of conviction to do more, and rejuvenated by the women around me. But I also came out more disgusted by the hate and injustice perpetuated by men on the women. We should be outraged. I challenge the men to stop dressing like the Prophet but to LIVE like one. Be the feminist that Prophet Muhammad was. We need Muslim women and men to work together and for men to accept us as absolute equals. And to the women who ‘buy’ into men’s supremacy over women and confuse the traditions of patriarchy with the teachings of Islam: READ, THINK. Free yourselves from the mental shackles imposed on us. Some women at the conference are skeptical whereas others are hopeful. But whichever way we lean, we should be agents for change. Muslim women have no choice but to challenge the traditional and oppressive state of affairs in our communities. We have regressed instead of progressed, and for some reason we in the Muslim world have been unable or unwilling to claim our rights. As I sit and listen to Mukhtaran Mai, Masouda and to the many women who have contributed so much, my own life is a blurr of confusion. Does anyone even understand what I do, do they even know I exist, does anyone care? The presence of my sisters and their kind words of encouragement have convinced me, once and for all, that what I do matters. That no matter what my contribution is, it is a pebble creating its own waves. As a friend says to me, “If I see injustice and turn my back, then I am not a Muslim”. That is the reminder that we all need to keep doing what we do. -Ani- * check out the photo gallery and video relating to this journal.

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singer / songwriter / producer / activist

I'm really excited about this new collection of songs in a new genre "Islamic Hymns". I'm co-writing & co-producing it with George Landress with backing vocal arrangement by Michael Mishaw. The music borrows from classical music with lots of choral arrangements. The lyrics is in English and Islamic in content. 

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